12 May 2020

Coming up in May

Despite the current situation, which has led to the closing of museums and institutions, we still intend to flag up the events and exhibitions that we feel are interesting, in the name of culture.

In and around Varese: the Marcello Morandini Foundation opens. Marcello Morandini is one of those multifaceted talents who, at one time especially, most characterised Italian creativity. He is an artist and designer, as well as an architect, graphic designer and exhibition curator. Born in Mantua in 1940, he has always lived in Varese. He has chosen a Thirties villa in the city for organising his collection and his archive and opening it to the public. A leading exponent of concrete art, he enjoyed tremendous success in Germany, especially during the Eighties. The Foundation, like the catalogue raisonné of his work recently published by Skira and edited by Marco Meneguzzo, demonstrates the absolute coherence of his artistic approach (his works in black and white are unforgettable). The Foundation, which is central to the city of Varese and stands in a large park, contains temporary exhibition spaces and spaces for educational activities.

What is Mr. Gehry up to in Arles? Arles: the quiet Provencal town where Van Gogh spent the last few years of his life, the land that stretches as far as the beaches of the Camargue. Not to mention the colours and the smells, the Roman amphitheatre and the bistros. What has Franck Gehry got to do with brandade (an emulsion of salt cod and olive oil) and gardiane de taureau (stewed bull meat accompanied by rice with walnuts) and all the rest of it? Where does the recently completed Luma Tower fit in? 56 metres tall, twisted like an evil castle in a Disney film, covered like a sea monster with 11,000 shiny aluminium scales. Built to house the Luma Foundation, with exhibition spaces and artists’ studios, it references the rough crags outside the city. To us it looks like a typical Gehry landmark, repeated for many years with minor variations, in vastly different parts of the world. Did Arles really need to play the “Bilbao card?”

What might have been never came to pass! Adriano Olivetti died on 27th February 1060. He was only 59, with thousands of dreams yet to be realised. This was the man who changed Ivrea, a provincial town, into the most shining example of “ideal city” town planning in contemporary history, the man who turned a factory into a business that was cultural as well as lucrative, the man who took on not just the top architects of the time, but also literary figures, writers and poets in order to achieve these aims, the man loved like a father, more than a father by his people. Adriano Olivetti was a technological visionary: he dreamed up the first electronic machines and the first computers. He was also a political visionary, steered by the magic word “Community” (which is what he called his magazine and his publishing company). People for him were not just individual entities, but communities in thought and action. Adriano died too soon, and town planning and industrial organisation took paths that were diametrically opposed to those he had suggested. Italian society became overwhelmed first by the consumer rush and then by rival ideologies locked in conflict. We still mourn what the Olivetti pax might have achieved.

Artificial intelligence and robots: let’s start with literature. As well we know, our imaginations created dystopian worlds long before science even began to conceive them. Now that robots have really started to move amongst us, Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me (Jonathan Cape, 2019) might make interesting reading. Adam is a beautiful, intelligent and extremely expensive robot, a “companion” with which Charlie wants to impress Miranda. It is a shame that he leaves the task of “programming it,” infusing it with life and desires, to her. For Charlie, Adam turns from a trusted friend, capable of discussing the relationship between Montaigne and Shakespeare or of solving a complex equation, into an invincible rival. Obviously we cannot reveal the finale that peaks in an unstoppable crescendo, but we should not forget one of the old laws of robotics: “A robot may not injure a human being!” Does that apply, however, to a robot that is more human than humans themselves and in possession of desires and conscience? It certainly applies to a robot “in love.” A must-read prior to going out and buying a domestic robot!

More Rodari than Munari. For many of us, Rodari’s fairytales, illustrated books, and poetically meaningless characters were part of everyday life. Telephone Tales (1962) and Book of Errors (1964) were children’s bedtime reading during the late 1950s. Rodari died early, in 1980. He was born in 1920, and this year marks both the centenary of his birth and the 40th anniversary of his death, and his books are being rehabilitated. Presumably by adults (who were children then, at the right time), since they are far too delicate for the children of today (but the fault certainly doesn’t lie with Rodari). The literary and theoretical worth of the teacher from Omegna is now becoming much clearer (see The Grammar of Fantasy: an introduction to the art of making up stories, 1973) and should not be confused with that of his older, but much longer-lived friend Bruno Munari who, over time and certainly not deliberately, partially eclipsed him (Munari did the illustrations for the first editions of Rodari’s books).

Preserve or rebuild? Sengu. The Reconstruction of the Ise Holy Shrine, an important book recently published by Mondadori Electa, tells a story that is virtually incomprehensible to Westerners. This particular 690 A.D. Shinto shrine is, in fact, destroyed and rebuilt (identically) every 20 years. It takes 8 years to rebuild, at an eye-watering cost. The Ise Holy Shrine is now being rebuilt for the 72nd time and its story is being told outside Japan in photographs and texts outside Japan. The images convey a profound rituality but nevertheless do nothing to dispel the fundamental question: why? Because, according to ancient Japanese belief, rebuilding means believing in the future and regenerating oneself in order to become part of the future. Leafing through these pages is really the closest tourists will ever get to the temple in which the Sacred Mirror depicting the Goddess Amaterasu is conserved and which is still watched over by the chief priestess, traditionally a member of the Imperial Family of Japan.

“Can you only do animals?” Antonio Ligabue not only painted hens, rabbits, turkeys and horses but also tigers, which certainly did not proliferate on the banks of the Po near Guarltieri, the village where he lived. Elio Germano (Tony Ligabue) is asked if he can only paint animals at a tense point in the film Hidden Away, directed by Giorgio Diritti. The film netted Germano the Silver Bear Award for Best Actor at the 2020 Berlinale. Physical suffering (he had rickets) mental health problems (he was in and out of the mental asylum in Reggio Emilia from 1937 onwards) as well as grinding poverty and the derision of his fellow villagers made Ligabue into a tragic figure, that not even his late success could redeem. His art took precedence over words, did away with words, and drove him to a physical relationship with the animals, and with their ways. The only alternative was a self-portrait – an even crueller and more merciless tool. Elio Germano manages to identify with it completely, allowing us to forget the gap between fact and fiction.

The sculptor Cristina Iglesias wins the 2020 Royal Academy Architecture Prize. The Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias has beaten off the other contenders to win this year’s Royal Academy Architecture Prize, with an extremely powerful entry channelling a totally original concept of “public art.” She follows in the footsteps of the American architects Diller+Scofidio (2019) and the Japanese Itsuko Hasegawa (2018). Each work in her series Rivers and Public Space focuses on a different unusual urban space, exploring the concepts of reflection and flow (of water and of time). Iglesias does not produce architecture as such, but her works make us look at architecture with a completely different eye. There is an unexpected abyss under a pool in a monumental fountain (Deep Fountain in Antwerp) and the rehabilitation of a forgotten waterway (Forgotten Streams in London) in front of Sir Norman Foster’s Bloomberg building. As well as pushing the boundaries of architecture, Cristina Iglesias is channelling a concept of urban art that is a far cry from positioning a statue, interesting or not, in a given public space, and which sets up a real visual dialogue with reality.

In Zurich: on a bank of the River Limmat. Fabrizio Barozzi and Alberto Veiga, of the renowned Catalan architectural practice, have recently completed a building dedicated to dance, the Tanzhaus Dance Centre, which virtually forms the embankment of the River Limmat. The apparently formalist decision to create a sequence of double-height trapezoidal arcades lends a metaphorical sort of movement to the building. It also brings the project into line with the great constructions near water (think, in particular, of Plečnik’s work in Ljubljana). The toughness of the exposed concrete and the obsessive repetition of the shapes creates a powerful rhythm, almost a “drumroll” effect, while the spartan interiors edged with black curtains play host to the practice sessions and performances of the corps de ballet, while a curious public wanders along the riverbank.

Ilkka Suppanen wins the 2020 Kaj Franck Design Prize 2020. Finland’s most prestigious award has been assigned this year to Ilkka Suppanen, the architect and designer who made his breakthrough at the 1990 Salone del Mobile di Milano with his group Snowcrash. He has since become a fixture on the Italian design scene and counts many of the stars of the international scene among his friends. The jury’s motivation reads: “… Ilkka Suppanen’s language of form is aesthetic, fresh, light and forward-looking. In his designs, he strives for usability, necessity and a long-life span.” He recently joined forces with Raffaella Mangiarotti to produce some important pieces, ratcheting up his “Milanese” credentials still further while totally eschewing that reluctance to embrace foreign influences that sometimes characterises Finnish design products. Hats off to Ilkka, as he bestrides Helsinki and Milan!

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